In 1973 Brian Clough stunned the world of football when he took charge of third-tier outfit Brighton and Hove Albion. Clough had his pick of jobs having recently led Derby County to the top-flight title and the semi-finals of the European Cup, so it came as a major shock when he agreed to take the reins of a club battling to avoid relegation to the Fourth Division.
Clough’s incredible achievements with Derby and Nottingham Forest are well documented, as is his ill-fated 44-day stint at Leeds United. But his time on the south coast remains largely unexplored, despite the fact that the episode is just as fascinating and colourful as anything else that took place in a memorable managerial career.
Just 12 days after his departure from Derby, which came about when chairman Sam Longson called the 38-year-old’s bluff after he handed in his resignation, Clough rocked up at the Goldstone Ground alongside right-hand man Peter Taylor.
“Even by Clough’s standards it didn’t really make sense,” says Spencer Vignes, author of Bloody Southerners: Clough and Taylor’s Brighton & Hove Odyssey. “The Albion he went to was a shadow of the club that it is now. They had never finished above 12th in the old Second Division, and you wondered what he was playing at. What’s more, he couldn’t even stand the south, so getting Clough to go anywhere south of Derby was an achievement.”
Clough had revolutionised the Rams, leading them from the lower half of the Second Division to top spot in the First in just three seasons. He rebuilt the club from the bottom up and got the best out of a squad of players that looked unremarkable on paper. Clough moulded Derby in his own image; his power was such that he was able to sack the club secretary, several of the ground staff and even two canteen workers for apparently laughing after a defeat.
But although he enjoyed the unwavering support of the club’s fans, Clough’s rocky relationship with Longson ultimately cost him his job. He and Taylor had briefly resigned in April 1972, a month before Derby won the title, only to change their minds after being offered improved contracts by the board at the Baseball Ground. Yet the same trick failed the following year, Longson seemingly embracing the maxim, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
Supporters protested vociferously and rumours of a mutiny in the dressing room abounded, but Longson stood firm. Clough soon found himself in the footballing wilderness, managing a club which had spent most of its existence close to the foot of the English league pyramid.
It proved to be a huge culture shock, even for a man who had served his managerial apprenticeship in the lower leagues with Hartlepools United. After all, Clough was now one of the biggest names in the game with an ego to match.
“Mike Bamber, the Brighton chairman at the time, was a real oddity,” says Vignes. “He was a property developer, he owned a nightclub, he ran a farm and he also had this football club on his doorstep which had underperformed for 72 years. It was his dream to try and get Brighton to the top flight.
“The money was good and Bamber saw something of a kindred spirit in Clough. As someone who had been born in the northeast during the times of the Great Depression, Clough was terrified of being unemployed – so Brighton became the bit of driftwood he could cling to.”
Just eight months after managing Derby in a European Cup semi-final against Juventus, Clough now found himself at the helm of a club who had recently lost 4-0 to non-league Walton & Hersham in the FA Cup. Unsurprisingly, the brash young manager wasn’t exactly enamoured with his new job.
“People go to Brighton for various reasons,” he later wrote in his autobiography. “For a holiday, for a day trip, for a place to retire, for a Tory Party conference. With all due respect to the club and its fans, you don’t go there for the football. Brighton is not a big-time club and is never likely to be.”
It was no secret that Clough viewed Brighton as a stopgap while he waited for better offers. He signed a lucrative contract with a hefty signing-on bonus but failed to embrace the city, living in a hotel room and regularly heading back to the East Midlands to be with his wife.
“The problem was he was given too much of a free reign,” Vignes says. “He never moved to Sussex and spent more time on the road to Derby than he did at the club. What he was up to none of us were really sure, but if anything it was Taylor who was out scouting players and observing opponents.”
Brighton won just one of Clough’s first 10 games in charge – a run which included an 8-2 thrashing by Bristol Rovers – with his appointment failing to bring about the revival in fortunes that many expected. Albion were in serious danger of slipping into the Fourth Division under a management duo with a reputation for taking teams up the league ladder, not down it.
“He almost washed his hands of the older players who he felt he couldn’t do anything with, deciding to concentrate his efforts on the younger and more impressionable members of the squad, many of whom were scared of a new boss who very much managed by fear and was even described by some as a bully,” Vignes explains.
The turning point came in Brighton’s final game of 1973, when Plymouth were beaten 1-0. It was only Clough’s side’s second victory in two months, but they went on to lose just one of their next 12 fixtures and gradually pulled clear of danger. The manager quickly moved to dampen expectations, though, insisting “we couldn’t get promoted even if we had Einstein in our side.”
He was right. The revival proved to be little more than a false dawn; Brighton’s form ebbed and flowed in the remaining months of the campaign, with three consecutive wins in April followed by a return of just one point from the last 12 on offer that season – not quite relegation form, but a slump which saw Brighton finish 19th, just two places above the drop zone.
As such, Clough needed little persuasion when Leeds came calling as they sought a replacement for England-bound Don Revie that summer. The former Derby boss happily walked out on the long-term deal Bamber had handed him on the south coast, leaving trusted lieutenant Taylor behind to pick up the pieces.
Clough lasted just over six weeks at Elland Road, before taking charge of Nottingham Forest in January 1975. He was reunited with Taylor in the East Midlands the following year and the duo went on to lead the club to unprecedented success, winning promotion from the Second Division, the First Division title and back-to-back European Cups in an astonishing four-year period. Had Clough committed his medium-term future to Brighton, could he have achieved similar at the Goldstone?
“He brought in a number of new players who would eventually become the nucleus of the team which would go on to do pretty well in the years to come,” says Vignes. “The problem was that he didn’t stick around to see the job through. Taylor stayed on and carried on building, forming the foundations of the Brighton side which eventually got to the top flight in 1979.
“Clough put us on the map – which it hadn’t been in 1974 – and in my opinion that’s his greatest legacy. He was never going to hang around; he seemed out of place at Brighton and in the Third Division, but the interest he generated by being there would ultimately sustain the club during its darkest hours.
“I really think if those supporters hadn’t started following Albion in the mid-1970s, 20 years later, when the club was without a ground and staring into the abyss, they would have been relegated, gone out of the league and there would be no club. And for that we should be grateful to Brian Clough.”
‘Bloody Southerners: Clough and Taylor’s Brighton & Hove Odyssey’ (Biteback Publishing) will be released on 18 October.